A topic nobody wants to address with kids – but sometimes, we have no other choice.
Losing a loved one is one of the worst parts of being alive.
Periods of grief are saddening, maddening, overwhelming and exhausting – and that's just when it comes to our own feelings. For parents and caregivers, loss is further complicated by having to ensure your children are also cared for and supported through their grief.
Our instinct to shield our kids from the worst parts of life, the magnitude of the topic at hand, and children's occasionally confusing behaviour can all make conversations with kids about death and loss difficult to navigate. That's why Bereaved Children's Awareness Week, which runs from 15-19 November, is aiming to inform parents and loved ones of the ways in which kids grieve and give them the tools they need to support bereaved children.
"It's completely normal to be nervous or concerned over speaking to kids about death and dying, or knowing what to say," says Maura Keating of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network (ICBN), which works to support grieving children as well as parents, caregivers, educators and youth workers. "However, it's really, really important to be as open and honest as you can in an age-appropriate way."
Breaking the bad news itself to a child is one of the hardest things any parent or caregiver will ever have to do – but it's best that they're the ones to do it, unless the circumstances mean they can't. "If the parents can't do it, it's best that a close family member does," Maura adds.
"It's important to break it down and be honest right from the start. Tell them, 'I have some very sad news to tell you' so that you're preparing them and letting them know that what you're about to tell them is going to be hard. Explain it as best as you can in a language that matches their age and comprehension. Young children will need very simple explanations, whereas older children will need more detail."
Age isn't just a number
When talking to children about any difficult topic, their age is important to bear in mind. There are a number of key developmental factors at play with each age group that could affect their understanding of and/or reaction to the loss of a loved one. Here's a breakdown of what to consider while communicating with each age:
Babies and toddlers
- Little emotional intelligence, no awareness of complex issues
- Can't comprehend death but can feel the absence of a person they're used to being in regular company of
- Might sense a change in the household (if the loss is within the household) but will generally carry on if their regular routine is maintained
- This sense of absence or change might cause them to show signs of clinginess or distress
- Self-revolved understanding of the world, so might wonder what the loss will mean for them and their routine
- Some level of emotional intelligence, but little ability to articulate feelings
- Therefore more likely to express emotions through outbursts of sadness or irritability
- Beginning to understand cause-and-effect but not in the long-term – they won't really understand the finality of death and may believe the deceased will return or needs to be found
- Broader, less self-revolved understanding of the world
- Greater level of emotional intelligence and ability to talk about emotions
- Still limited in their ability to understand complexities such as the finality of death
- Might ask black-and-white or challenging questions in order to try make sense of this finality
- Their limited understanding of cause-and-effect might make them blame themselves or wonder if something they did or didn't do played a role in the death (e.g. "is dad not coming back because I didn't tidy when he told me to?" or "is my sister gone because we always fought?")
- Might concern parents by displaying regressive behaviours, playing violent games, or making violent art
- Further again level of emotional intelligence and even greater ability to discuss feelings, so might ask many more questions
- Will probably be more direct and expectant of getting all the facts and details
- Their understanding of the world is now far less self-revolved, so they may worry other people they know and love will also die
- Might show their distress and grief through disturbed eating and sleep patterns, a withdrawal from friends or interests, or a declined school performance
- Greater understanding of death, loss and grief
- Have the ability to articulate their feelings, partake in discussions and ask questions – but that doesn't mean they will
- Again might show their grief through disturbed eating and sleep patterns, a withdrawal from friends or interests, or a declined school performance
- Their grief, combined with their age's desire for greater independence, might lead to rebelliousness, intense displays of anger or moodiness, or drug and alcohol use
- Will likely feel the death on a more existential level than younger children, so might have feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty about the future, or might question the meaning of life
Honesty is the best policy
No matter the child's age, it's important to tackle the discussion as honestly as possible in plain and simple language. Steer clear of euphemisms like "gone to a better place" or "in a very deep sleep" in attempt to soften the blow. It might sound harsh, but these can actually do more harm than good. Older kids might find them patronising, while younger children are too literal to understand them and will only get confused.
Another thing to note, Maura says, is that younger kids quite literally need to be told what "death" or "dead" actually means. Explain to them that the body of the person who has passed away no longer works – they no longer feel pain, breathe, have a heartbeat, get hungry or thirsty, sleep and wake, talk or so on. It's uncomfortable for you, but actually does a good service in helping them understand and not be concerned. Without this knowledge, juniors are often left worrying about things like whether their loved one is lonely after burial or was hurt during cremation.
With all ages, answer their questions as best as you can. If there's one you don't know the answer to, say so. That way they know you're not hiding anything from them and that they can go to you with anything else they might think of or worry about at a later time. If you let your protective instincts prevent you from being open and honest with the kids, you risk them picking up bits and pieces from overheard discussions and (in younger kids) their imagination running wild due to their limited capacity to make sense of what they hear, or (in older kids) them resenting you for leaving them in the dark about the death of someone they love.
Repeat and reassure
As we all know, conversations about the death and loss of a loved one don't stop at breaking the initial news or leaving the funeral. With kids who suffer a loss during their early years, the conversation may need to be revisited at each stage of development when they can take more in or have more questions.
It's also completely normal, Maura says, for their grief to be more intense during these periods than how it was when the loss initially occurred. Their greater emotional intelligence allows them to understand the magnitude of the loss in ways they didn't before, and now they're coming to terms with it.
It's also completely normal for kids of any age to dip in and out of mourning, Maura says. Parents are sometimes baffled by how quickly a child seems to bounce back from terribly sad news or how they might prioritise their own desires. It's not uncommon for kids who have just been told about a death to ask if they can still go to McDonalds that evening or attend a birthday party at the weekend as planned. This doesn't mean they don't care or are in denial; they're just at an age where their world mostly revolves around them. And in the face of loss, they need reassurance that not everything is going to change.
Hopefully, most kids live in a secure bubble during childhood in which their day-to-day life is safe and structured. When a death occurs, that bubble is somewhat burst and a child's sense of security can be shaken. For that reason, it's important during conversations about loss to emphasise that they will always be supported and taken care of, no matter what happens. Maintain their regular routine where possible so that their sense of stability can be restored overtime.
There's no handbook on how to talk to kids about death, but there are support services that can help guide you through it. And remember, looking after yourself through your own grief is as equally important as supporting your children through theirs. "You can't mind them if you don't mind yourself," Maura says.
There'll be a number of events for parents, caregivers and professionals during Bereaved Children's Awareness Week, starting with an open evening webinar by the ICBN on Monday 15 at 7.30pm. To find out more about this and other events throughout the week, visit the ICBN's website.